The London Visit is at the Heart and Soul of Kenyan Politics
August 1, 2005 8 Comments
The British government has banned Transport Minister Chris Murungaru from stepping on UK soil. Joining him are a senior security official, a high-ranking civil servant at the AG’s office in a list including up to five ministers whose visas to Britain may also be revoked.
Though much of the coverage of this story has revolved around the diplomatic implications of the ban, let not the level of emotional and psychological anguish that a Kenyan politician feels at being unable to visit London be underestimated. From shopping at Harrods to strolling in the manicured lawns of their children’s boarding schools in the English countryside, access to the ‘mother-country’ is considered by Kenya’s political elite to be a key signifier of ‘making it’. Many own property in London – the abovementioned security official and civil servant for example reportedly own homes in the capital – and it is a favourite stop to bank suitcases of cash illegally procured from the public purse.
Since the Lancaster House conference, a series of three meetings in the early 1960s in which Kenya’s constitutional framework and independence were negotiated, the trip to London has always determined the trajectory of a political career in Kenya. With much of governing consisting of a slavish aping of colonial rule, the Kenyan politician requires psychological top-ups every once in a while. He visits London to be reminded of how high he has risen in the world: the distance he has put between himself and the dusty village he was born in and the mean streets he lords over.
The Kenyan politician exists in a tortured state when it comes to Britain, or England to be more exact. He loves all things English from the part of his personality that is aspirational. He grew up seeing the mzungu (the colonial settler or official) as a symbol of power and privilege, and more often that not was led into nationalist politics by a rarely stated or even conscious desire to one day follow suit. His lowly station in relation to the mzungu naturally made him burn with a resentment that was only compounded by his envy. The fruits of his success are not only wealth, but include the same paternalism and petty brutality that the British colonialist displayed toward the Kenyan. For the British to revoke Murungaru’s visa is to humiliate one of their political offspring; it is to arouse a similar anger among Kenya’s rulers as they would feel toward a deadbeat father.